This weekend I almost fell out of my seat when my husband suggested that we head over to the Nickelodeon Theater to see “Belle.” I’d planned on waiting for the film to come out on iTunes to watch it on an evening when he would be traveling for work. He certainly would have groaned (or snored) through yet another period film on my watch list.
However, this was not a period film. By definition, it was such due to the fact that the plot takes place in the Britain of the late 1700s. The movie was full of respectable accents, silk parasols and powdered wigs. All things that bring a resigned sigh from my husband when they’re presented as a movie option.
“Belle” is quite different—even for Aaron. The film is based on a true story—a fact which was close to all I knew when we entered the theater. The one other fact I knew was that the story was connected to a mysterious painting of a young, pretty-yet-typical-looking aristocrat that also featured a woman of color who was clearly unlike the black servants who sometimes appear in the peripheries of such artwork.
What I did not know was that I was entering a situation that would leave me feeling simultaneously hollowed-out and exposed, shedding tears in a way that I never have in front of a big screen.
Honestly, it was a little (very) embarrassing. The theater was packed, the show sold out. Say what you will about context, but most of the time the audience in an independent art house theater is predominantly white. There were many couples out on dates, many of whom seemed to fall somewhere on the continuum of those comfortable years before retirement but after moving their last child into a dorm room. There were some groups of women who looked to be a little further down the continuum who giggled with each other and talked loudly in a manner not too different from the defiantly giddy packs of teenage girls who crowd entirely different types of movie theaters. One of these groups was seated directly in front of us. I wouldn’t have taken any special notice, except when the movie started and the beautiful mixed-race child of a character was brought out to meet her relatives, one of the packettes in the middle leaned over to her friends and said, “THAT’S THE DAUGHTER!!” in a stingingly twangy stage whisper.
The movie tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the product of the meeting of Royal Navy captain John Lindsay and an African slave whom we learn little about other than a general idea that Lindsay loved her.* Dido was brought to her uncle, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, who was already raising another niece, Elizabeth Murray. From then on the two girls were raised together, receiving the same education and, within the privacy of the Mansfield’s estate, niceties befitting two young women who would have to learn about the more unromantic transactions of being introduced to aristocratic society. Obviously, this was an unusual situation in which to find a little black girl in 1781. As people around me commented, gasped and giggled throughout the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if the situation was being viewed with a similar novelty to the one expressed by Mansfield’s befuddled visitors from other towns and estates. I even found myself glaring at my husband at one point, but then realized I was projecting my own discomfort onto the one living person in the room with whom I had a real connection.
In many ways, this story rings universal. Across America we are still in the midst of an identity crisis because our history as slaves and masters followed a line that did not necessarily end with the trade’s abolition. This identity crisis is particularly poignant in the South—a land whose culture sweeps uncomfortable situations under the rug with a giggle while outwardly praising its eccentricities as refusal to bend to the oppression of conformity.
The gaping chasm between the realities of Dido’s life and that of women with similar skin tones was a new concept, but it hasn’t gone anywhere. Right now I’m sitting in my bedroom with my laptop, looking out of a large window into a garden where my two boys are giggling wildly as they spray each other with water guns. Normally I’d be working across the house in my study, which is strewn with books, collected trinkets, works of art and papers, but my youngest barely slept last night (therefore I didn’t, either), so I’m working while reclining on a floraled summer quilt as my nanny is doing her best to tire the boys out for tonight. I don’t live anything close to the perceived life of an American or British aristocrat. I grumble about my grocery budget and the cost of gas. I cook my own meals, iron my own clothes, and have only one residence. However, I’d be an idiot to deny the fact that compared to many women of color living in America, I live a life of privilege. According to Wider Opportunities for Women, a Washington, D.C.-based group, 61% of black households do not have income that provides economic security. Add to this the heavy stigma and uncertainties that still go along with being black in this country, and it makes for a pretty unsettling reality for many.
This topic came up when I was chatting with a black writer at this year’s South Carolina Book Festival. As we spoke about his perception of the South since moving to Greenville from New York, he mentioned that his perception is very different than many other Greenvillians of color, as is mine. Neither of us drives down the street with a fear that we’ll be pulled over just because we’re there because we fall into a certain category of class and income. He went on to say that those of us who were raised by parents who had the luxury of spending the time and money required for an intellectually cultivating, formal education are often assigned a sort of “adopted white privilege” in day-to-day cases (not that there aren’t reminders everywhere of skin color being a social marker). Similarly, Dido was also afforded the luxury of an upbringing that gave her a borrowed privilege. Because she spoke and walked like the others, she was tolerable. Because she wore the insignia of an intellectual match, she was let in.
But the fact that Dido’s skin was brown was not so invisible, was it? The matter of her maternal line was often pitied or brushed aside—it was a characteristic that was considered a shameful hurdle, and Dido must have really been something special to overcome it enough to learn and speak according to the rest of society, right? She was so articulate and so accomplished. Words that make many women of my generation cringe at the patronizing lilt those words have taken on, as if such qualities, which are a basic expectation of most, are a miracle coming from us.
I married into a family that’s so much different from my own that my husband and I often joke about the improbability of our ever having found each other. But despite generations of advanced degrees, entrepreneurship and fashionable taste (that’s a veiled shout-out to my fabulous mother’s sense of style you’re seeing, there), there are a few of my husband’s relatives who find my skin color unsettling. Some of the people who were his classmates in his hometown would only see me as an unattractive novelty, rather than the complicated mess of faith, education and debate (and celebrity tennis tournament parties**) that helped form me. It is a natural tendency for humans to have their vision distorted by an idea of disfigurement or shame, whether or not it exists. Just as Dido’s suitors saw her skin color as a smudge to be overlooked, dark skin is still looked upon as a hurdle in 2014.
Though they bore through me and shook up my emotions, the parallels of privilege and “shame” are not what sent me over the edge. It was the invisibility of it all that did that for me. It was the fact that hardly anyone knew about the divine portrait of two beautiful girls who were equals that has been hanging at Scone Palace in Scotland for years. Dramatic interpretations of Dido’s story began to crop up around 2006, but until then, this member of a historically famous family, whose patriarch—hopefully owing in part to an idea that his protection of his niece was a bit hypocritical—opened the path for Britain’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
Then there is the invisibility that Dido had to face by having no idea who her mother was or who her mother’s mother was. There are some parts of my family tree that can’t be officially traced past 1900, and I know others who can’t even get that far. This is one of the plights of having black Southern roots in America—we have very little recorded tradition on which to base our family dynamics. Those members who fall behind the recorded dateline only exist in a haze of old stories, if we’re lucky.
The laughs and comments from the women** around me during the movie were a reminder of the steadfastness of this invisibility. When the lights came up, I darted to the restroom, knowing I looked a mess. As I walked into the bathroom stall, two women were in the corner. With yet more giggling, one said to the other, “That was just like ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’! It was great!” Their lilting chattiness faded as they put on their lipstick and went out, never noticing that someone was sobbing like a maniac in the stall next to them.
*The movie doesn’t mention Lindsay’s two other illegitimate children by other mothers—I’m not discounting the possibility of love, but… hmm…
**Please accept my apologies for throwing in a private joke here. There are about 5 people who had the mis- or good fortune of being in a bar with my parents, husband and me recently who were forced to hear a story about my reason for being that I’m not quite ready to tell. It’ll come out in due time, I suppose. ;)
***When Aaron and I went out for a drink afterwards, I mentioned the reactions I noticed during and after the movie. He said that the tone in the men’s room leaned more toward weighty astonishment.